Images of parched fields and shrinking lakes show just how desperately California needs a liquid miracle. Lawmakers are scrambling to save the state from becoming the next Sahara by implementing more stringent water restrictions and emergency funding, but some wonder whether their efforts are too little too late. How much time before California’s precious reserves run dry?
By some earlier, dire estimates, California could be totally waterless by July. Jay Famiglietti, a scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, California, said he thinks there’s more time, but not much. He predicted this week that California has enough water to get it through one more year.
But state water experts say those estimates are probably unrealistic. California has at least two more years’ worth of reserves, state water managers said Thursday, according to the Los Angeles Times. "We have been in multiyear droughts and extended dry periods a number of times in the past, and we will be in the future," Ted Thomas, a spokesman for the California Department of Water Resources, told the Times. "In periods like this there will be shortages, of course, but the state as a whole is not going to run dry in a year or two years." There’s also the option of tapping into groundwater supplies, which could provide decades worth of water.
Still, two years isn’t a promising timeline. After a disappointing rainy season and an abysmal snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, not much was added to California’s water reserves this year. Record warm temperatures in January only made matters worse.
This week, state lawmakers passed new rules further restricting water consumption across the state. Under the latest regulations, slated to take effect at the end of this month, restaurants will no longer be able to offer water to customers unless they ask for it; homeowners won’t be allowed to water their lawns for two days after a rain; hotels will be required to offer a no-wash option for towels; and water suppliers will have to further limit landscape watering, according to the Orange County Register.
“If it doesn’t rain this coming winter, we’re going to have even more of a catastrophe than we’re already having,” Max Gomberg, climate change adviser for the state Water Resources Control Board, which convened Tuesday to pass the new rules, told the Register. “We are still experiencing a drought and we need that conservation to continue and we need it to increase.”
Californians were optimistic at the onset of the state’s rainy season in December, which kicked off with gray skies, rainfall and snow. But hopes of fuller reservoirs and greener hillsides quickly evaporated in January, when the rain suddenly stopped.
"This is a struggle," Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown said during a Capitol news conference in Sacramento on Thursday. "Something we're going to have to live with. For how long, we're not sure." The governor proposed a $1 billion drought emergency plan that would go toward upgrading the state’s water infrastructure, but critics said it simply wasn’t enough.